“To be a catalyst to create lasting social, cultural, and institutional
change to improve the lives of Hmong women.”
By Pa Der Vang
At the age of 42, I am considered an elder in my community. Not only is elder status related to age in the Hmong community, it also has to do with experience and one’s role in the community. I am a mother of two, I have a Ph.D. in Social Work, and I’ve spent 20 years volunteering for my community. These three factors have contributed to my status as an elder. The story of my elder status has a lot to do with my work with Hnub Tshiab, Hmong Women Achieving Together, an organization founded by a group of Hmong women leaders in 1998 in St. Paul. Hnub Tshiab’s mission is to be a catalyst to create lasting cultural, institutional, and social change to improve the lives of Hmong women.
I was born in a Thai military base that became a temporary refugee camp for Hmong refugees fleeing Laos in 1975 after the end of the Vietnam War. We became refugees because my father, along with thousands of Hmong in Laos, fought along side the American CIA in the Secret War. When the U.S. lost the war and pulled out of Laos, Hmong knew that they would be persecuted. We were freedom fighters and traitors at the same time.
My parents arrived in Missoula, Montana when I was one year old. I was a curious and observant Hmong daughter, which got me into a lot of trouble. At the age of 8, I had the opportunity to read Hmong folk tales in my afterschool Hmong language classes. I was critical of one of our folk tales, Yao The Orphan, in which the king’s daughter, who married Yao, a poor orphan boy, was told that if she was unhappy in her marriage, she was to find a broom and dustpan and sweep the whole house in order to find happiness. Folk tales are magical. In her efforts to clean the house, she found a pot of gold and silver and she and Yao were happy. I knew early on that this folk tale was meant to teach girls that being a good Hmong wife would lead to happiness. My young mind felt that there was more to life than just cleaning house and serving my husband. At that time, my school principal had just relayed to me that I could have a Ph.D. one day. His name was Dr. Scott and I was confused about why he wasn’t practicing medicine and he was just a principal.
I continued these types of criticism into my adulthood and found much resistance from my community. I left a marriage at age 23 even though I knew it meant I would be ostracized from my community. I was being selfish for leaving my family and focusing on my schooling instead. I lived on my own while in college despite claims that Hmong women who live alone are up to no good. While in college, I wanted to publish about Hmong women and the affects of traditional culture practices on the socioeconomic and mental health of Hmong women in the United States. I found that maintaining traditional practices such as teenage marriage and domestic servitude often inhibited Hmong women’s socioeconomic health and mental health later on in life. I encountered lots of resistance, but I continued my work and later published several articles on this topic. Now I serve as a role model to other Hmong women, who want to do the same type of research. I carved a path for young Hmong women to do more work in this area.
While I was in school and volunteering, I felt very alone in my journey. I grew up during an era in which Hmong women did not question the status quo. The consequences for doing so were isolation, ostracization, ridicule, and even violence. Therefore, there were only a handful of women who spoke out about violence and oppression against Hmong women. In August 2000, I came upon Hnub Tshiab, Hmong Women Achieving Together, while I was a graduate student. This was a small group of Hmong women around the same age as myself engaged in grass-roots efforts to end domestic violence against Hmong women by ending sexism. They’d been doing this work since 1998. I finally found my kindred spirits!
We boldly worked on “ending sexism” until Winter of 2007. We talked to people, published newsletters, gave talks, spread the word only to face criticism and threats from our community. But we were told, essentially, to “talk to us about sexism, but don’t talk to us about sexism.” The community wasn’t ready to talk so explicitly about violence against women at that time. We realized that we had to do something different. We had to go around the system, not through it. Following a 2006 retreat with over 50 Hmong women in Sandstone, Minnesota, we found that the issues around violence and oppression against Hmong women remained unchanged.
Hnub Tshiab held a board retreat in the Spring of 2008 and crafted a new mission. Instead of trying to end violence by changing sexism, we would be a catalyst for change by creating Hmong women leaders. We changed our mission to: “To be a catalyst to create lasting social, cultural, and institutional change to improve the lives of Hmong women.” We created the Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute and we incorporated as a 501c3 Nonprofit organization in the same year. We changed our narrative. Instead of pounding on the problem of sexism, we focused on finding a solution for women. Instead of fighting a futile battle against age old sexism, we would create Hmong women leaders as a solution. Changing the narrative was a powerful step in our organization’s work. Today, we are in our 9th year of our Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute and we have graduated over 96 Hmong women leaders who have gone on to create lasting social, cultural, and institutional change to improve the lives of Hmong women.
The story of my elder status has little to do with me. Although it is about me and my life, it has to do more with the journey of Hmong women. My life as a divorced mother of two resulted in ostracization, shame, and stigma, but this experience led me to my Ph.D. and my studies about the effects of traditional practices on the lives of Hmong women in America, and finally to the work of developing Hmong women leaders through Hnub Tshiab, Hmong Women Achieving Together.
At the age of eight, in reading the story of Yao the Orphan Boy, I knew that sweeping my house was a metaphor for being a good housewife. The pot of gold was the happiness I could find if only I could be a good wife. I knew that I would have to be brave if my pot of gold lie elsewhere. I also knew that I wasn’t alone in this desire. I would have to look to the women who were already doing this work, and continue to lay down bricks along the way for the Hmong girls that came after me. It wasn’t an easy road, but it came with so many rewards. I found my pot of gold in my passion for my work, and the relationships I forged along the way. I don’t wish to change the folktale of Yao the Orphan Boy, I wish to add more to the story, and in doing that, I became an elder.
Pa Der Vang, Ph.D., MSW, LICSW, is an Associate Professor of Social Work at St. Catherine University, and Board Member of Hnub Tshiab — Hmong Women Achieving Together.